13.03.2024 Author: Boris Kushhov

A promising element of Eurasian transit: the Irtysh international transport route

the Irtysh international transport route

In 2023, the load on Kazakhstan’s Caspian ports increased by almost 10% to 6.5 million tonnes. This is still far from their maximum capacity of 21 million tonnes. Nevertheless, the country’s leadership has concerns about limiting the transport capacity of the lake in case of further shoaling of its northern sections.

The costs of such circumstances promise to be significant. In this regard, in addition to the development of the Middle Corridor (ТМТМ) and dredging, the Kazakh authorities are making efforts to create new transport routes to be served by river transport: we are talking about the Irtysh transport route project, the preparation of which was announced at the very end of 2023.

The total length of navigable waterways of Kazakhstan reaches 2100 kilometres in three basins – Irtysh, Ural-Caspian and Ili-Balkhash. About 1.6 million tonnes of cargo were transported through them in 2023, which is 4 times less than what passed through the Caspian ports. It is for this reason that the international transit potential of river shipping in Kazakhstan looks underdeveloped.

At the meeting of the public council of the Abay region on 11 December 2023 the question of the relevance of the revival of international navigation on the Irtysh River was raised. Already during the meeting of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan on 12 December 2023, it became known about the interest of the Kazakh authorities in promoting the project of the river transport route.  Its implementation will ensure the transportation of up to 2.5 million tonnes of cargo along the river. By 2027, the Kazakh authorities plan to increase the volume of river transport to 4.6 million tonnes.

The works planned under these plans include the creation of a new shipping lock in Semey, reconstruction of the Oskemen Lock, as well as the Bakhtarminsk and Shulbinsk shipping locks, construction of a new port and a new railway line, and dredging works.

The Irtysh transport route can be revived not only as it existed during the Soviet era, being a significant transport artery between Kazakh SSR and RSFSR: in the current realities it can become a new transport and infrastructure element linking Russia and China. To connect Kazakhstan’s two largest neighbours, it is planned to build a port near the village of Tugyl on Lake Zaysan and to build a 100 km railway from it to the Maykapshagay border crossing point with China, which will link the route to the Chinese village of Jeminay. However, to connect the new line with the PRC railway network, a 200-kilometre-long main line will have to be built on Chinese territory.

If successfully implemented, the Irtysh corridor will link north-western China with the Russian city of Omsk, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway line. In addition, it may become one of the shortest and most efficient routes linking China with the Northern Sea Route: many decades ago, ships travelling along the Irtysh River reached the northern seas.  It should be recalled that the promotion of the Ice Silk Road concept in the PRC may indicate that it has a keen interest in such routes.

As of early 2024, this project has not yet been included in any of Kazakhstan’s programming documents. However, this year it is planned to discuss and study its prospects, agree details with China and Russia, and develop a project passport if all the preliminary stages of its development have been successfully completed.

In addition to the Irtysh route, other river transport projects are planned in Kazakhstan, including the modernisation of the Atyrau river port to increase the capacity of the Ural-Caspian route.

In this way, Kazakhstan is seeking to maximise its transit opportunities while promoting a whole range of water transport projects, from trans-Caspian to river transport.


Boris KUSHKHOV, Department of Korea and Mongolia, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. Especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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